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Ohio voters reject push to hinder abortion rights amendment

Such state-level clashes over reproductive rights have revved up since the Supreme Court overturned a constitutional right to abortion

People gathered at the Marion County Republican Party headquarters in July to discuss Issue 1, an amendment aimed at making it harder to pass an abortion rights amendment in November. Voters rejected Issue 1 on Tuesday.
People gathered at the Marion County Republican Party headquarters in July to discuss Issue 1, an amendment aimed at making it harder to pass an abortion rights amendment in November. Voters rejected Issue 1 on Tuesday. (Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Abortion rights advocates notched a key procedural win Tuesday in a push to enshrine reproductive rights in Ohio, the latest in a wave of direct action in states after a Supreme Court decision last year that wiped out a constitutional right to abortion.

Voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have made it tougher to approve changes to the Ohio Constitution. The change had been sought by opponents of a constitutional amendment set for a vote in November that could expand abortion rights.

With 95 percent of the vote counted Wednesday morning, 57 percent of votes were opposed to the initiative. It was the only item that appeared on the ballot statewide and was the state’s first August special election for a ballot measure since 1926.

It would have increased from 50 percent to 60 percent the number of votes needed to modify the state constitution and increased from 44 to 88 the number of counties where citizens must collect signatures for an initiative to qualify for the ballot.

Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, a Republican, said it was time to shift the focus to defeating the initiative on the ballot in November. “The people of Ohio have spoken,” Stephens said.

Ohio currently permits abortion until about 22 weeks of pregnancy, but the legislature has passed laws with tougher restrictions. Court rulings have so far paused implementation of those new laws.

Ohio voters will decide in November whether to change the constitution to protect access to reproductive health, including contraception, miscarriage care, fertility treatments and abortion, in the state. Such state-level clashes over additional abortion bans or reproductive rights have revved up since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, with a record six referendums on abortion policy.

Ballot initiatives have increasingly let citizens circumvent issues ignored or blocked by state legislatures or governors. Voters in Kansas, California, Michigan, Vermont, Kentucky and Montana all sided with supporters of abortion rights.

Abortion rights supporters have invested in pursuing state constitutional changes, which if adopted are difficult to reverse and can be used as precedent to block current and future abortion policy restrictions.

Other states

Ohio is currently the only state with a scheduled vote on abortion policy in 2023, but the fight has already attracted broad national attention in what could be a model for other states seeking to restrict or expand abortion access. Some groups are seeking to use a similar strategy in Arizona and Missouri for votes on abortion initiatives in November 2024 and could face similar strategies to try to stop them.

Arizona for Abortion Access, a newly established PAC, announced an effort Tuesday to secure a vote to protect the right to abortion in the state constitution on the November 2024 ballot. Abortion in that state is currently limited to 15 weeks.

The PAC, backed by groups such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and NARAL, emphasized the importance of enshrining constitutional protections after officials sought to implement the state’s 1864 abortion ban last year.

“Successful passage of this initiative will serve as a foundation upon which to build further efforts assuring true reproductive freedom for Arizonans, today and tomorrow,” said Jodi Liggett, senior adviser for NARAL Arizona.

The announcement follows polling released Monday from progressive groups Indivisible and Data For Progress that 58 percent of Arizona voters disagreed with the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, including 56 percent of independent voters.

Opponents of the push criticized the announcement as antithetical to local values. Maria Birnbaum, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s Arizona state director, said the proposal by “far left special interest groups aims to create an Arizona unrecognizable to those of us who live here.”

Arizona voters last year approved changing the threshold to 60 percent for initiatives and referendums that would raise taxes, so opponents of abortion rights there could seek to do the same for other ballot initiatives ahead of November 2024.

In Missouri, where all abortions are currently banned, advocates are seeking a November 2024 vote on an amendment to include protections on abortion and contraception. In May, the state legislature fell short of passing a law that would have increased to 57 percent the number of votes needed to approve such an amendment to the constitution.

But separate fights over the summary of the amendment and the potential costs to the state mean advocates will have a shorter timeline for collecting about 170,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. Those can be collected only after completion of the process of determining the fiscal impact and ballot summary.

On Sept. 11, a circuit court judge will hear a challenge to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s ballot summary, which the ACLU of Missouri has argued includes leading and unfair language. Any decision is likely to be appealed.

And two GOP state lawmakers filed a separate lawsuit Monday that challenges a state auditor’s estimate on the cost of the ballot initiative.

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